Midway between Johannesburg and Durban on the N3, and at the end (or beginning) of the N5 from Bethlehem, Harrismith is one of the largest truck and transport stops in Southern Africa. It does, however, have a whole lot more to recommend it than its status as a refuelling point. The town sits at the base of a flat-topped mountain, Platberg, in the Thabo Mafutsanayana region of the Free State.
This location is, in fact, its second home. It was initially laid out 25km away in 1849, but was moved in 1850 due to the lack of an efficient water source. The town is named after the British Governor, Sir Harry Smith – just 90 kilometres away in KwaZulu-Natal lies a town named after his wife, Ladysmith.
The diamond rush at Kimberley in the 1870s spelt growth for the fledgling town as a staging post on the route from Natal, and buildings such as hotels and stores went up.
Then, with the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War at the end of the 1800s, it assumed a military significance. Blockhouses and a military cemetery in the vicinity attest to this.
Harrismith is an access point to the Northern Drakensberg, the Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve, The Royal Natal Park, the Golden Gate National Park and the Maluti Mountains. It is the centre of one of South Africa’s five wool-producing regions. Architecturally, it has some fine examples of 19th-century sandstone buildings and churches.
Look out for
The Platberg Reserve stretches up the western slopes of the Platberg Muntain to the summit. There are trails to the top, popular with hikers and mountain bikers, as well as the Donkey Pass road.
The mountain is also the location of the 15-kilometre annual Platberg Mountain Race, which dates back to 1922. Its origins lie in the comment of a British soldier, Major A E Blecher, who referred to the Platberg as “that small hill of yours”. A local bet him he could not make it to the top in less than an hour. Belcher took on the challenge, reaching the summit with eight minutes to spare. He subsequently contributed the race’s floating trophy.
Dirty Harry is another race, but for mountain-bike enthusiasts. It takes place each October as part of Harrismith’s Berg Bohaai (Mountain Mania) Festival.
The Harrismith Town Hall, an elegant sandstone and brick construction, is a National Monument.
Sterkfontein Dam is the country’s third largest and attract anglers and water sports fans.
The 18-hole Harrismith Golf Course was founded in 1887 and is one of South Africa’s oldest.
At Kerkenberg, Voortrekker leader Piet Retief left his people encamped while he went down to Natal to negotiate with the Zulu king, Dingane. Retief’s daughter recorded his name and the date on a rock where a church service was held.